Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tisha b'Av, Tents, and Pigeon Eggs

There were three separate happenings this week that are all connected by a common theme of homelessness.

The Homeless Bird
There is a very strange commandment in Deuteronomy 22:7: called Shiluach Haken,   The verse tells us that if you chance upon a Mother bird sitting on her eggs, do not take the mother with the young.  You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.  It's a very mysterious mitzvah.  Theoretically, according to Rambam and other commentators, it is more humane to send the mother bird away since it would be too cruel to see her watch her eggs being taken away.  You may or may not agree with the commandment, but that's the mitzvah anyway.  I never imagined me fulfilling this mitzvah, because the few times I have seen nests, they have been in trees, and why would I want or need to do anything with the eggs.
The Pigeon's Nest on our Windowsill
Well, a pigeon made a nest on the windowsill of our bedroom window.  These are not clean birds, and having the mother bird and, potentially, the baby birds there presents a health hazard.  So we had to remove the nest.  We opened the window, and almost as if it knew the Torah line, the Mother bird flew away.  We then removed the nest (well, Karen did, actually), placing it on a bush nearby.  I'm  not sure the bird ever found the eggs, but, as strange as it sounds, this was quite a spiritual moment for our entire family.  It was all still twinged with a little bit of guilt that we may have created a couple of homeless baby birds.

Tent Cities
Tent City in Downtown Jerusalem
When you think of tent cities you think of homelessness.  There are tent cities springing up all over Israel today, but not for homeless, but rather, as the centerpiece of one of the largest protests in Israel's history.  Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are protesting the cost of housing in Israel, which continues to rise.  Some say it has been deliberately planned by the left wing to bring down the Netanyahu government.  In point of fact, many of the left wing groups in Israel are providing funding for the tents, the food, the speakers, and the entertainers.  It also appears that many of the protesters are young people having the time of their lives.  I was particularly uncomfortable last night when about 50 of these folks were walking with torches on King George Street in the center of town, though fortunately trailed by both police and fire trucks.

But you also see people from across both the religious and political spectrum involved in these protests.  And you see passion and dedication and caring from people about meeting the basic needs of their country and its people.  And you see that, perhaps, the agenda for this country in future elections will be not only about security and terrorism but also about the economy and about the society in which the people want to live.  And you see a responsiveness on the part of the government that you don't see in most of the world, as they try and figure out equitable solutions for all.

What you don't see is a government crackdown on the protesters like you see in the rest of the Middle East. What you don't see is violence and looting like you see in England.
What you don't see is hopelessness and despair.

Solutions are another matter Everyone wants more affordable housing, more affordable daycare, and higher paying jobs.  but exactly how one gets it is another matter entirely.  And I'm not sure the very people who are protesting would be willing to take buses and forgo owning cars or live in Kibbutzim instead of private homes or subsist on a diet of lentils and rice and chickpeas and black coffee instead of hanging out in cafes and sushi bars.  Still, that people are having a dialogue about such important issues is a very good thing, all catalyzed by a bunch of tents symbolizing people without a home.

Tisha b'Av
This week we commemorated the holiday of the 9th of Av, which, in a way, is a holiday about the homelessness of the Jewish people.  The holiday originated as a way to commemorate and mourn our exile after the destruction of both the first and second Temples.  It was and is, in a sense, a holiday of homelessness.  It is also the day when more bad things happened to the Jewish people than on any other day.= in our history  This includes not only the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem, but also the edict of the Spanish Inquisition, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and, Biblically, the day the ten spies brought back the evil report about the land which determined that the Israelites would have to wander for 40 years in the desert.  It's a day of mournfulness, fasting, and reading the Biblical book of Lamentations.

I have found that many Jews have difficulty relating to this holiday.  Some tell me it is because although we are sad that the Temples were destroyed, they are not sad that animal sacrifices will not be reinstituted, and thus do not want to fast or even recognize this day of tragedy.  Others say that we should not observe this holiday because we are no longer in exile.  When you look out at Jerusalem you see it has already been redeemed, at least partially so.  Others have told me that the holiday is too particularistic, and that Jews do not have a monopoly on suffering.  Still others say that they just don't believe in a holiday which glorifies tragedy and melancholy.

Personally, the holiday does resonate with me.  If I can't deeply identify with my people's suffering at least once a  year, I feel like I am doing a disservice to my people, my land, and my God.  I always find the haunting chanting of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, to be starkly moving.  It was especially beautiful this year for me, joining a few hundred others at the egalitarian service at Robinson's Arch right next to the Western Wall.

In the daytime, I attended another fabulous program at Pardes, where I heard Natan Sharansky speak about his life story, Rabbi Daniel Gordis speak about the nature of a people that is/are still broken, a rabbi named Gideon Weitzman speak about the Biblical spies' evil report in the context of exile really being about the idea that we are in exile when we are not ourselves, and a Professor named Naftali Moses speak about the loss of his own son in a terrorist attack on the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva three and a half years ago.

This day of learning and mourning and connectedness was very intense but worthwhile.  The Jewish people have a home now in Eretz Yisrael, but until we are free from terror, normalized among the nations of the world, we still feel a certain homelessness and rootlessness.

During announcements at many of the synagogues, they would say, "hopefully, Jerusalem will be completely redeemed in the next few days, weeks, etc,. but in case it is not, we will have a Tisha b'Av program on August 9, etc."  I find these words comical but comforting.  Not only should the tragedies never be forgotten, but hope should never be forgotten as well.


  1. I enjoyed reading about your observance of the 9th of Av. Did you know that the first world war was allegedly started on the 9th of Av?

  2. Not exactly, but close. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914. The war really got underway with the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia on July 28. The 9th of Av that year was August 1, which was a Shabbat, so mourning was observed on August 2.